MLBAM Primed for ESPN3.com Relaunch

ESPN has tapped Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) to provide the backbone video player and infrastructure for ESPN’s 24/7 broadband sports network, ESPN360.com, marking the union of two of the major heavyweights in the world of live sports streaming.

When ESPN360.com relaunches as ESPN3.com on April 4, the video hub will feature a host of new features. Among them: an Adobe Flash-based video player, courtesy of MLBAM, which currently runs MLB.TV as well as several other sports-video-oriented sites.

“Collectively, we’re probably No. 1 and No. 2 in distributing live sports video,” says Bob Bowman, president/CEO of MLBAM. “So collectively, I think both of us will be able to offer an even better product than we offer today.”

Flash Forward
The biggest change comes in ESPN3.com’s central video player, which previously ran on Move Networks technology and required users to download a plug-in. The new MLBAM-designed Flash-enabled player, however, will allow fans to instantly watch video on-screen, as the Adobe technology is by far the most widespread video player on the market today.

“We became convinced that it didn’t make sense to continue having a video player that needed a plug-in. We were limiting the audience when 99% of them had access to Flash,” says John Kosner, SVP/GM of ESPN Digital Media. “Part of the motivation here was to move to a solution that involved Flash, but we also felt that, when we examined our own competencies, this was not our area of key strength and expertise, so it made sense to try to find the best third party out there. For sports, that was MLBAM.”

The New ESPN3.com
MLBAM will also offer operations support and play a substantial day-to-day role for ESPN3.com, taking care of everything from stream encoding and distribution to authentication and anti-piracy efforts.

The site will use technology similar to MLBAM’s highly successful MLB.tv. New features will allow viewers to fully entrench themselves in ESPN3.com and experience several video and information streams at once. MLBAM’s video player, which offers streams up to 3 Mbps, provides picture-in-picture and split-screen viewing, live game look-ins, real-time highlights, and customizable widgets with scores, fantasy information, chats, and schedules.

Most important, ESPN3.com, which currently streams more than 3,500 live events each year, will offer more events in HD than ever before. The immediate goal is to stream at least 25% of this year’s live events in HD.

“Every single game that’s shot in HD, we will stream in HD,” says Bowman. “That’s how we’ve done it with our own content, and that’s we will do it with ESPN.

ESPN3 on Mobile Devices?
ESPN3.com is currently available at no cost to the 50 million households that subscribe to affiliated Internet service providers, but the idea of ESPN3 on mobile devices is obviously a hot topic. While the ESPN3.com service is currently not available on mobile devices, Kosner says it is definitely a long-term goal for the network.

“I think the important thing is that we’re not [ready to provide mobile service] today, so we want to make sure that the work we’re doing today is as quality as possible,” he says. “However, we’re not and have never planned to be exclusive to any form of technology, so we’re not ruling anything out.”

Of course, the biggest question in terms of a potential ESPN3 mobile service will be its decision to use Flash, which is currently not supported on Apple’s iPod and iPad. However, Bowman and MLBAM, which has a solid and long-standing relationship with Apple, believe it is a non-issue.

“I think it’s much ado about nothing,” says Bowman. “We build [an MLB.tv app] for the iPhone and the iPad in addition to our other apps. If you’re a content publisher and you care about being on the iPhone and iPad, you’re going to find a way. Just dry your tears and build an app for it.”

ESPN-MLB Content Crossover
While the partnership is purely technical at this point, the most fruitful aspect of the deal could end up being the infinite cross-platform–content opportunities that it presents.

“The technology has to work, the backend has to work, it has to be best in class — all those things,” says Bowman. “But the upside — the real ice cream, if you will — is if we can figure out some way to make someone who’s watching a FIFA World Cup soccer match be eligible to see a live baseball game, or vice versa.”

Before the two organizations can sink their teeth into this market potential, however, MLBAM must perfect its work with ESPN3.com. Although MLBAM is already a proven sports-streaming provider (by Bowman’s estimation, it will stream a total of 10,000-12,000 live events for several outlets this year), Kosner wants to make sure that ESPN3.com can walk before it runs.

“Although there are no specific plans today [for cross-platform integration], it’s not because we don’t think it’s a good idea or fans wouldn’t like it,” he says. “We just literally want to make sure, as we get started, that we’re focused on the right things, which is making sure we really improve the technology and services that we have.”